Africa’s close ties to China have led to questions over the preparedness of the continent, which remains one of only two continents with no confirmed cases of the virus, for what experts are warning may yet occur.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 565 people have already succumbed to the virus, with 28,000 confirmed cases globally, most of them in China.
Last week WHO declared the pandemic a global health emergency, a decision primarily informed by fears that poorer countries might not be able to cope with the outbreak.
“The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China, but what is happening in other countries. Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Ethiopia.
The state of the health sector in many African countries is already worrying, with many countries struggling with the existing workload and provision of primary health-care.
Michael Yao, WHO’s head of emergency operations in Africa, admits that some African countries “have the minimum to start with – they’re not starting from scratch.”
“We know how fragile the health system is on the African continent, and these systems are already overwhelmed by many ongoing disease outbreaks, so for us, it is critical to detect earlier so that we can prevent the spread.”
Until just a few days ago, only two countries, Senegal and South Africa, had the capacity and necessary facilities for testing for the virus – they had the reagents needed to test samples. Ever since the outbreak, the two countries have been working as a referral for countries around the continent.
This number has since risen with Ghana, Nigeria, Madagascar, and Sierra Leone announcing they can also conduct tests.